BRIEF: How TIME Tells you about Education Failures

WASHINGTONTIME magazine editors managed to relegate a major news item on the colossal failures of US public education, as revealed by broad international comparative test scores, into a small “news in brief” section. And, beyond that, they managed to hide the substance of the information by not stating clearly that US secondary school students, on average, are at the bottom of most, highly relevant, comparative academic rankings.

OECD Student assessment: US at the bottom

The story is the publication of OECD, (this is a Paris based international organization grouping most developed economies around the world), sponsored tests that compare and rank academic proficiency of students in all developed economies around the world. The exercise is known as “Program for International Students Assessment”, or PISA.

The way TIME covered it

Well, if you read TIME, (December 20, 2010), within the “World” section, (a sort of news in brief), you get information about the just released PISA scores in this way. Under the title “In School, China on the Rise“, you read that Shanghai’s schools are the best in the world, according to the just released comparative scores; but that this may not be equally true across China as a whole, as Shanghai made special efforts to create magnet schools. In closing, you read that, according to the test results, the US test scores are lower than other countries, such as Finland and South Korea.

True but distorted: the bad news is hidden

The beauty of this selective reporting is that the information provided is all absolutely true and correct. Shanghai is indeed on top and the US is indeed behind Finland and South Korea. All true. Except that the story is presented in a way that will not allow your average reader to understand that the US is not just behind two or three countries. The US is close to the bottom of the class. In other words, America is behind almost everybody else.

Policy makers understand the implications of a failing education system

Now, this is huge. All responsible education leaders across America, starting with Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, (Duncan, to his credit, has tried to set in motion a basic reform of the entire secondary education system), have commented that these disappointing results are powerful indicators of the state of serious disrepair of American public education.

They have also commented that America, if these trends are not rapidly reversed, risks losing any competitive edge that it might still retain in high tech and innovation. Indeed, it is impossible to be a leader in the ever more demanding knowledge economy with an under educated, at best mediocre, work force.

At least give honest information: tell the truth

In other words, this PISA scores news item is a really big deal. But no, if you read TIME, you only get that Shanghai kids are on steroids and that America finished behind (by how much?) Finland and South Korea. Implicit conclusion: “Not great for America; but no disaster, really”.

This is unfortunately another instance in which really bad news, news that should become material for a serious debate about our future, is sanitized and made almost irrelevant.

This is not a good way to inform Americans about how our declining education standards affect us domestically and, long term, internationally.

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